How To Get Your Pre-Pandemic Sleep Schedule Back

The stress and routine disruptions from the last few years have drastically affected our sleep. Here's how to take back some control.
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When life turned topsy-turvy during the pandemic, it became challenging ― if not impossible ― to keep some semblance of a normal sleep routine.

We’re going to bed later and sleeping in more. We’re squeezing in more naps and started working, working out and watching TV from our bedrooms. The lines between work and leisure got blurry, and on top of that, our habits and behaviors changed — we’re drinking more caffeine and consuming more alcohol. All things that have made it difficult to maintain a regular sleep schedule.

Looking to get back on track now? Here’s how to reestablish your sleep routine:

Set bedroom boundaries.

In response to stay-at-home orders in 2020, many of us transformed our bedrooms into multifunctional spaces in which we exercised, ate, read, watched TV and worked. As a result, our brains began to associate the bedroom with wakefulness, work and play — not sleep. When that happens, it gets harder to sleep in a space we’re used to doing everything else in.

“If you’ve been using bedroom for activities other than sleep and sex, reclaim that space,” said Susan Rubman, a behavioral sleep psychologist at Yale Medicine and assistant professor of clinical psychiatry at Yale School of Medicine. Take all of those activities that are incompatible with sleep, and if you can, move them to another area of your home.

According to Lynelle Schneeberg, a fellow of the American Academy of Sleep Medicine and the director of the behavioral sleep program at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center, you want to be asleep about 90% of the time you spend in your bedroom. Spending more time hanging out in your bedroom during the day is simply not conducive to sleep.

Establish a wind-down routine.

There’s power in having a soothing and reliable wind-down routine. Winding down for about 30 minutes each night can help you relax and tell your body that it’s almost time for sleep.

Your wind-down routine can be pretty simple — brush your teeth, wash your face, get into pajamas, and do a relaxing activity (read a book, listen to a podcast or do some gentle stretching).

“Anything you do in the same order night after night becomes a queue for sleep,” Schneeberg said.

Adjust to your new bedtime gradually.

If you want to adjust to a new bedtime or wake-up time, do so gradually. “People shouldn’t be adjusting their bed time or rise times by large amounts,” Schneeberg said.

If you wish to start your day earlier, start waking up 15 minutes earlier than you usually do until you’ve reached your goal time. For example, if you’ve been waking up around 9 a.m. and want to start waking up at 8 a.m., set your alarm to 8:45 a.m. for a few days. Once you’re adjusted to waking up at 8:45 a.m., set it to 8:30 a.m., then after a few days of that, set it to 8:15 a.m. Once you’ve adjusted to the earlier wake-up time, an earlier bedtime will naturally follow.

Address your emotional needs.

Intrusive thoughts can keep us stirring through the night, so it’s important to try and address your emotional needs before going to bed.

Schneeberg recommends doing “a daily download.” Set some time aside a few hours before bedtime to jot down a list of anything you need to accomplish or take care of. Then, put it aside and make a plan to address it the next day. She also recommends keeping a notepad next to your bed — if anything comes up throughout the night, jot it down so that you don’t feel the need to work it out during the night.

It’s been a rough pandemic; we’ve all gone through trauma in one way or another. If you’re struggling with feelings of anxiety and depression right now, especially at night, know that you’re not alone. Make a plan to talk to a specialist who can help you address your emotional and mental health needs and work toward getting your sleep back on track.

Ditch your devices before bed and opt for a book instead.
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Ditch your devices before bed and opt for a book instead.

Don’t go to bed until you’re drowsy and set a morning routine.

It might sound dreamy to go to bed at 10 p.m., but if you’re not tired, there’s no point forcing yourself to go to bed early.

“If you’re not sleepy, you’re not going to be able to go to sleep,” Rubman said. You can’t will yourself to sleep, and you’ll probably just wind up laying there, thinking about how you’re not sleeping.

It’s OK if your bedtime fluctuates a bit each night — it’s the wake-up time you want to be consistent with. Rubman suggests waking up at the same time each day — that’s what’s ultimately going to reset your body clock and keep you in a sleep routine.

Schneeberg recommends locking in a morning routine with a cup of caffeine, some physical activity, a meal, exposure to sunlight and some kind of social interaction. Together, these things — especially soaking in some sunlight — will kick your circadian rhythm into gear, promote wakefulness, and get your body up and running.

Cut back on devices before bedtime.

When we play on our phones, laptops or iPads, the blue light these devices emit activates our brain and keeps up awake and alert. Plus, our devices tend to be a time vacuum — it’s easy to start using them and lose track of how long we’ve been on them.

Try to avoid using electronic devices for about a half hour before heading to bed. Rubman also recommends setting your devices to night mode in the evening, about an hour or two before you go to bed, to reduce your exposure to that stimulating blue light.

If you’re going to nap, do so early.

Though a lengthy afternoon snooze might sound tempting, it could throw off your entire sleep cycle. You can definitely nap, you’ll just want to go about them strategically.

Tip one: keep your naps to under an hour, and set an alarm clock if need be. Tip two: try to fit your nap in before the afternoon, around 1 p.m. “Anything later is going to start encroaching on their ability to fall asleep at night,” Rubman said.

Avoid caffeine and alcohol before bed, but consider a snack.

Don’t have caffeine after 4 p.m. or within six hours of bedtime unless you want a restless night, according to Rubman. Alcohol can also disrupt the quality of our sleep, which is why Rubman recommended avoiding alcohol within four hours of bedtime.

Doctors used to advise against snacking before bedtime, but it really depends on the person. If you tend to wake up hungry in the middle of the night, a small healthy snack before bed can keep you satiated — and asleep — until morning. If you have acid reflux or digestive issues, you’ll probably be better off skipping the bedtime snack and holding off until breakfast.

While these tips can be incredibly helpful for those who are having trouble falling asleep or getting back into a sleep routine, they aren’t quite as necessarily for people who have an easier time conking out. Listen to your body, and do what feels right. And with all of these things, go easy on yourself. It takes time and patience to establish a new sleep routine, but if you stick with it, it’ll be well worth the effort.

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